Tunisians voted on Sunday in the first round of their presidential election, to replace former president Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in office in July. (His term was due to expire at the end of the year anyway.) With no candidate close to a majority, the top two candidates will contest a second round – on 29 September according to Wikipedia, although other reports say the date is uncertain.
This is the sort of election where the two-round system doesn’t work very well. There were 26 candidates; eleven of them (as of this morning, with 77% counted) had more than 3% of the vote, none more than 19%. So the assumption that the top two would have remained at the top if the others had been eliminated one by one, instead of all at once, is rather shaky.
Still, that’s the system, and a single preferential ballot would have problems of its own. The two candidates for the runoff are law professor Kaïs Saïed, who is on 18.8%, and media tycoon Nabil Karoui with 15.5%. In third place is Abdelfattah Mourou of the Islamist Ennahda party, with 12.9%.
Saïed and Karoui are both outsiders, of a sort. Saïed ran as an independent – the BBC, Al-Jazeera and Reuters all omitted him from their lists of front-runners, although he had led in several opinion polls – while Karoui spent the election in jail, having been arrested three weeks earlier on charges of money laundering and tax fraud. He claimed, of course, political persecution, and electorally it seems to have done him no harm.
More establishment candidates finished back in the field. Abdelkrim Zbidi, a former defence minister backed by Essebsi’s party, is running fourth with 10.3%; incumbent prime minister Youssef Chahed is fifth on 7.4%; and former president Moncef Marzouki could manage only eleventh place, on 3.1%.
Politically, both finalists are broadly on the right. Saïed is a constitutional law expert and is seen as a conservative, while Karoui, who was previously an ally of Essebsi but had a falling out, leans more to the populist side – his media interests have produced the inevitable comparison with Silvio Berlusconi.
Turnout was only 45%, down 19 points on 2014. As the initial enthusiasm of the Arab Spring has faded it was natural to expect some decline, but it definitely suggests a population unhappy with the choices on offer, and perhaps sceptical of the chances of any of them making much impact on the country’s problems.
One of the limitations on their ability to effect change, for better or worse, is the fact that Tunisia’s system is semi-presidential, so the new president will need to work with parliament to get things done. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 6 October – you can read my report on the last one here.
Polling so far has given conflicting views on the likely outcome of the second round. Intuitively, Karoui would seem the more polarising candidate and therefore less likely to make up the deficit, but no doubt his prospects will become clearer over the next fortnight.